“Comrades, Rally Around Your Soviets!”: The Centenary of the October Revolution

Anonymous, “October” (1928).

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, and those of us who fight to end capitalism find ourselves at a unique crossroads. On the one hand, amidst the intensification of capitalist class power around the globe, we see a resurgence of far-right and nationalist movements that, if not wholly unprecedented, put to rest any fantasy of easy equivalence between immiseration and leftward radicalization. On the other hand, the anti-capitalist left is also experiencing a rejuvenation. In the United States, membership in socialist organizations has surged over the past year, and it seems that every week we read a new poll attesting to the renewed appeal of socialism among today’s youth. Some of these new forces understand socialism, either explicitly or implicitly, as a gradual reform of capitalism, rather than as the abolition of the state and capitalist social relations, and this orientation frames many discussions of left strategy today. The centenary of the Russian Revolution thus offers us an opportunity to study once more the historical convergence of factors which produced the overturning of Russian society in 1917, as well as to revisit the Bolshevik Party as an experiment which prioritized the work of organization, of articulating heterogeneous social subjects into a dynamic unity capable of seizing and practicing power.

If we conceive of communism as emerging through the social struggles of a complex and diverse working class, one which struggles in and through forms of organization to institute a deep-seated, self-governing, classless society, then the Russian Revolution, the soviets, and the Bolshevik Party remain essential reference points. But, as many of the essays below make clear, we must neither succumb to the temptation of nostalgia nor read the Bolshevik project as an invariant model for all occasions. The results of any rigorous project of inquiry will, at a minimum, illuminate the great chasms that separate us from the experiences of 1917. Our interventions can only be based upon a continually renewed strategic analysis of our own present conjuncture. And so our return to Lenin after 100 years must be a critical one, and we must remain open to new forms of struggle rather than fetishize certain organizational forms over others.

Here readers will find a selection of texts in several clusters, some new and others previously available in Viewpoint. First, we offer two new translations of essays recently penned by Antonio Negri on Lenin. Also new to Viewpoint are two introductions to the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai’s Women Workers Struggle for their Rights, one written by Kollontai herself (1918), contextualizing the publication of that pamphlet after the Revolution, and another by Sheila Rowbotham (1971) upon its translation into English. The next two essays on Lenin and The State and Revolution by Viewpoint editor Salar Mohandesi were previously published in 2012. The subsequent three essays by Panagiotis Sotiris, Jodi Dean, and Immanuel Ness are reprinted from a roundtable on revolutionary strategy in Viewpoint’s fourth issue, The State (2014); our translation of Daniel Bensaïd’s 1968 master’s thesis, originally published in the same issue, is also presented below. From deep in our archives, Asad Haider and Mohandesi’s 2011 introduction to translations of the correspondence between Anton Pannekoek and Cornelius Castoriadis testifies to the range of responses to Lenin within the so-called “ultra-left.” And finally, we also include here Matthieu Renault’s 2015 article on Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev, an understudied Bolshevik who theorized a Muslim communism which ran up against Russian chauvinism in the early USSR.

Lenin’s Slogans | Antonio Negri

What might “All Power to the Soviets” mean in the present moment? I sense that it means: to build a movement, to unite forces where we find them, to form coalitions, elaborate material goals to organize all those who work and are exploited, to constitute power, to articulate a hegemonic strategy.

The Lenin Question: Organization and Mass Struggle | Antonio Negri

If we want to call the “Lenin question” the problem of organization opened in the 1970s and today newly again before us, we can certainly do so, provided that it is understood that the watchword of Lenin does not mean nostalgia or organizational fetishism, but is rather a new solution for the problems that he had posed and victoriously resolved.

Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights: Introduction (1971) | Sheila Rowbotham

Kollontai’s life reflected the political turns of the revolution, just as her fame since her death has fluctuated. Our organizational reality is not hers, yet her works continue to pose key questions for women’s liberation and the revolutionary movement.

Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights: In Place of a Foreword (1918) | Alexandra Kollontai

Only a radical change in the whole existence of the working class woman, in the conditions of her home and family life, as she acquires equal status with men in civil law will wipe out once and for all the barrier which to this day prevents the woman worker letting her forces flow freely into the class struggle.

The Actuality of the Revolution: Reflections on Lenin’s State and Revolution | Salar Mohandesi

Lenin always looked to accessing, articulating, and advancing the proletarian viewpoint at the level of theory. This meant closely reading the composition of the proletariat in order to discover the political project already implicit in its struggles, using that inquiry to fashion a political program capable of making that project explicit, and then concretizing that program in a way that would allow him to anticipate the next moves in the struggle. This is the real meaning of practicing the art of politics: matching an historically specific program to an historically specific class. This is what we must relearn from Lenin today.

All Tomorrow’s Parties: A Reply to Critics | Salar Mohandesi

Though my article “The Actuality of the Revolution” centered on Lenin and 1917, it was really about the present. I think this became clearer as the debate on the article progressed, encompassing questions within the Occupy movement. For this reason, I’ve decided not to quibble over details, but rather to review the history in a way that more clearly shows how this debate, and the role the Bolsheviks played in 1917, speaks to our current historical conjuncture. Since the pressing question, the one that tied all these articles together, was actually the question of the party, I will try to clarify and elaborate my analysis of the function of the party form, responding to the three critiques of my original argument.

Rethinking Political Power and Revolutionary Strategy Today | Panagiotis Sotiris

The ques­tion of polit­i­cal power has returned to the fore­front of polit­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sion. This is not a coin­ci­dence. The acute eco­nomic cri­sis, its seri­ous social con­se­quences, the open polit­i­cal cri­sis in cer­tain social for­ma­tions, and the very sight of the over­throw of gov­ern­ments and regimes under the force of polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion – despite, in the case of the Arab Spring, the tragic end of such processes – mean that such ques­tions are again urgent.

Commune, Party, State | Jodi Dean

As it forces the mat­ter of the polit­i­cal form of the peo­ple, the Paris Com­mune serves as a key ref­er­ence point in Marx­ist dis­cus­sions of the state. What form does the people’s self-government take? Inso­far as the peo­ple pre­cede the state, analy­sis of the Com­mune event nec­es­sar­ily opens up to the people’s sub­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion and to the polit­i­cal process of which the peo­ple are the sub­ject. And inso­far as the peo­ple politi­cized are peo­ple divided, a part of a con­sti­tu­tively open and incom­plete set, the place from which the peo­ple are under­stood is nec­es­sar­ily par­ti­san. The ques­tion of the party pre­cedes the ques­tion of the state.

Lessons for Building a Democratic Workers’ State | Immanuel Ness

The fail­ure of social­ism in the early 20th cen­tury is a prod­uct of the inter­nal contradic­tions of bour­geois democ­racy, which per­mit­ted inde­pen­dent working-class orga­ni­za­tions on con­di­tion that they did not pose a chal­lenge to the cap­i­tal­ist state. In this way, the most sig­nif­i­cant his­toric frac­ture on the Left, one which remains with us today, fol­lowed the eager embrace of lib­eral democ­racy by Sec­ond International reformist social­ists.

The Notion of the Revolutionary Crisis in Lenin (1968) | Daniel Bensaïd

In sev­eral places through­out his work, Lenin tries to define the notion of a “revolution­ary cri­sis,” espe­cially in Left-Wing Com­mu­nism: An Infan­tile Dis­or­der and The Col­lapse of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional. How­ever, he out­lines a notion more than he estab­lishes a con­cept, as the descrip­tive cri­te­ria that he enu­mer­ates remain sub­jec­tive assessments.

Deviations, Part 1: The Castoriadis-Pannekoek Exchange | Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi

Spanning an entire generation, a linguistic divide, and a geographical shift, the epistolary encounter between Anton Pannekoek and Cornelius Castoriadis in many ways marks the internal transformation of the ultra-left. But the ultra-left, far from a historical relic, is making headlines again.

The Idea of Muslim National Communism: On Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev | Matthieu Renault

Within subaltern, postcolonial, and decolonial studies, there are two heterogeneous and competing conceptions of this provincialization of Europe, whose entanglement remains a source of ambiguities. There is, on the one hand, a conception that holds provincialization to be synonymous with the particularization, and thus relativization, of “Eurocentric-European thought,” and Marxist thought in particular. There is, on the other hand, an understanding of provincialization as a stretching that underlines the need for an extension and displacement of the borders of theory beyond Europe, as a condition of possibility of an authentic universalization.

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